When the solution is the problem

I became a scientist because I was INTERESTED. My love was developmental biology, and I recognized early on that all that wondrous development was due to molecules. I struggled through chemistry in high school, understanding concepts but scoring low on exams until my AP Chemistry teacher cut a deal with me -- show all your work (ie work out the calculations through all the units - then, put in the numbers). Only 20 years later did I realize that number dyslexia was ONE of my issues with the mathematics!

To BE a biologist, I decided to major in chemistry (at least the professor could explain the math) and worked my way through college as a lab technician, where I prepared numerous solutions, dilutions, assay cocktails and assay data analyses. Much to my chagrin, a soon-to-be Nobel prizewinner visiting my lab discovered a systematic error in some data analysis I was describing (thankfully before the paper was submitted for review).

All that real work in calculating ratio and proportion and finding that EVERY solution (just about) had its quirks did at least give me the kind of eye that could commiserate with very bright 9-12-graders who couldn't BELIEVE that powers of ten had value outside of math class or that modern scientists actually use 7th grade mathematics as professionals. And, when urban minority students learn to prepare solutions, this helps them access math they didn't get in middle school. Moreover, early on, Ballou students were encouraged to creatively teach each other serial dilutions - to show what they know. It was heart-warming to be allowed to drink diluted pepsi or nibble on concentrated chocolate chip cookies during one student-teaching session and especially to hear from a young man at Ballou, "This isn't as hard as I thought. Teaching what I learned to someone else helped ME!"

As biotechnology educators we all know that how to do the math to prepare real solutions or analyze real data is a crucial skill that is best developed with the real responsibility, during their education, of students applying the math again and again, not just for you the teacher but to be provided as a service to others, especially other students or teachers.

When I started the Biotech program at Thomas Jefferson HS back in 1985, we had 400 9th graders all rotating through the Introduction to Biotech and 50 seniors, 12 of whom were in senior biotech. By 1987, 100 students were enrolled in the junior(senior) elective, DNA Biotech. Having been a Laubach Literacy Council Adult Reading volunteer, I implemented as a high school teacher the "Each One Teach One" philosophy.

During that first year, and until I moved on in 1999, the seniors expanded their solution preparation expertise by preparing the stocks for the junior DNA elective and the juniors prepared the working solutions for the 9th grade program. Sophomores in the Plant Tissue Culture elective (grades 10-12) got a head start on solution solving; their solutions helped both their own project work and with the grade 9 African Violet culture unit and besides, improved their understanding of chemistry, the 10th grade science course.

The National Institutes of Health has begun to give special attention to summer interns from community colleges, reserving a significant number of positions for 2-year students in their highly competitive summer internship programs for undergraduates.  Now in its third year, NIH offers a Community College Day, attended this year by nearly 500 students.  Amidst their advice on the kinds of jobs (not only as a lab technician) possible in the biomedical sciences, specific instructions for indicating the applicant's community college student status, the NIH workshop presenters also recommended to students and faculty alike the importance of gaining experience with laboratory math.

Visit the NIH OITE Webinar links for Lab Math I and II here: https://www.training.nih.gov/nih_resources#Other%20Online AND for advice on applying for, interviewing and participating in the scientific endeavor.


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